5 lazy ways to practice a foreign language

Learning a new language isn’t easy. I’m not suggesting that you’ll become fluent by half-assing it. (So un-knot those knickers, please.)

But it’s summer, the season of laziness. I feel guilty being unproductive (#AmericanProblems) but sometimes I just don’t want to analyze news articles or read French literature. Soooo in the same way that I equate eating jam with getting my five a day (what? There’s fruit in jam) I have a few ways to “study” that are so painless, you’ll think you’re just chilling drinking rosé pink lemonade. You can have a lazy day and still feel like you did some work. (As long as you don’t make every day a lazy day.)

Watch TV with subtitles

I don’t like watching movies and TV dubbed in French, just as I wouldn’t like watching French movies dubbed in English if that were a thing. I always go for VO – version originale – because it’s just more enjoyable to watch. And can you blame me if most all of my favorite TV shows are in English? (Most French people will probably tell you the same thing. And if you’ve watched French TV, you’ll know why.)

So if my brain or uterus hurts and I just feel like binge-watching some Netflix, I put on the French subtitles and BAM I can call it learning. And I actually have learned a ton by doing this, so it’s not like the jam-for-fruit excuse (although I have eaten a lot of fruit via jam). I pick up new words and expressions no matter what I’m watching. I jot them down in the moment, and then look them up and study them later on. They’re not necessarily things that are difficult to understand, but things that are new to me or that I wouldn’t use actively, even if I understand them passively.

I also think it’s really interesting to see how humor is translated, since it’s often based on language or culture. For example, a play on words like “I love you from my head tomatoes” can’t be translated literally. In French, the translation was “Je t’aime de tout mon coeur de boeuf” because “coeur de boeuf” is a kind of tomato. (Bonus points if you know which Netflix series I’m talking about. Still haven’t decided if I like it.)

And when Phoebe says she’s late for her Green Eggs and Ham discussion group, well, that won’t make any sense in a culture that doesn’t know who Dr. Seuss is. So in the French version, the discussion group was about the “madeleine de Proust” and the effect on “le mémoire.” Lol?

Jill has some interesting observations on using Netflix to improve your language skills too. (She analyzes subtitles and dubbing simultaneously because she’s not as lazy as I am.)

Find language exchange partner

I have done this in Chicago, Paris, and Lyon in Spanish, Italian, and French via conversationexchange.com. It’s a little like dating – you send someone a message online, and you decide to meet up for coffee. Sometimes it’s awkward and you leave it at that. And sometimes you make a new friend. If you click, then doing a language exchange just feels like hanging out with a friend. You can try new cafes and restaurants, get ice cream, take a walk around a cool neighborhood – whatever you both like to do.

You need to have at least a basic conversational level, but it’s okay if you’re not fluent. I’m definitely not fluent in Spanish, but forcing myself to speak the language has helped me make lots of progress. Luckily, my language exchange friend is very patient and loves mid-afternoon snacks as much as I do.

Set an itty bitty daily goal on Duolingo

Duolingo is an app and a website for learning foreign languages. Its mascot is a happy green owl. You can either start at the very beginning or take a placement test. Activities introduce new vocabulary and grammatical concepts and require you to recognize and produce words and sentences, written and speaking.

Does it work? If you don’t combine it with additional practice, probably not. But it won’t hurt, and if you use it as a tool, it can help. Take notes and repeat everything out loud to maximize your results. (But don’t use this as your only teaching source and take it with a grain of salt – when I was helping my dad with his Duolingo in French, I noticed a few errors.)

What’s good is that you can set a daily goal of how many lessons you challenge yourself to complete, and Duolingo will track your progress. My advice is to set that goal at a level that you can realistically complete every day, no matter how busy you are. Do you have 30 minutes every day? Maybe not. But I bet you can squeeze in 5 or 10 minutes. You can always do more if you want to, and it’s better to do a little tiny bit every day than to put it off for a week (or forever) because you don’t have time to do a lot at once.

Listen to podcasts

I’m a huge fan of podcasts. I always recommend that my students listen to podcasts to improve their aural skills, because listening without a visual challenges your ear more. There are also many to choose from, so you can choose something that interests you that isn’t too long for your attention span. I like getting a few minutes of news in French and Spanish, and sometimes other podcasts from France Inter. If I’m traveling outside of France I’ll squeeze in something like “ItalianPod 101” or “German survival phrases.

If you’re learning French, try French Etc, les Infos en français (or en français facile, where they speak a little slower), or one of the podcasts from France Inter. If you go for a language learning podcast, try out a couple to find one you like. (Because I’ve heard some that are booooring.)

Why is this lazy? You can listen while you chop vegetables, put on your makeup, lie in bed with cucumbers over your eyes. Yes, it will work better if you concentrate and take notes, but listening and repeating isn’t a bad start.

Do a “guilty pleasure” activity in your target language

Things that are a “waste of time” in English turn into “studying” in your second language. I stand by this, as long as you don’t abuse it! (Please don’t spend all your French study time watching Allô Nabilla.) You can learn things about the language and culture by watching reality TV, reading magazines, falling down the YouTube rabbit hole… whatever.

The bottom line is that a little lazy language study is better than nothing at all. It shouldn’t be torture, after all, and you can learn a surprising amount doing these things. But of course, they will work better as a complement to a language class or more active study. That said, I have had a lot of students who credited their excellent English to watching TV shows and playing video games. (…and not to my awesome teaching. Thanks guys.)

Have you tried any of these ideas? What has helped you to learn a new language?

Preparing for the TAPIF language assistant program in France: What to do, and what not to do

Hello future language assistant. If you’re getting ready to come to France for the next school year, I’ve got some tips for you. I was an assistant in a lycée in Lyon in 2013-2014, and although I initially had my doubts about the program, I ended up having a great experience. Even though I had already been living and teaching in France for a year before I went, I reached out to past assistants to get tips from them and they were delightfully helpful. I hope you’ll find some useful ideas or resources in this post!

Do practice your French

In my opinion, the better your French is before you move, the easier it is to improve while you’re there. Before moving to France, I used Conversation Exchange to do a French/English language exchange. I also used Meetup to find a French language group in my area.

When you watch French movies, challenge yourself to take the subtitles off if you can, and watch French videos on YouTube. Try Golden Moustache Videos – they are hilarious and you can put on subtitles. (I know I just said to take the subtitles off, but you may want to have the option with Golden Moustache – their jokes go by fast, and subtitles can help you learn some of the slang they’re using.) The best one is the longest one, Le Fantôme de Merde. There’s also Norman fait des videos and Cyprien. You can also watch Quotidien in French, and for something a little more serious, C dans l’air.

The number one thing I wish I had known about sooner? Comme une Française TV. Géraldine makes great videos demonstrating expressions and cultural quirks that you just don’t learn in the classroom. I’m fluent in French and I still learn new things from her videos all time. Even if you’re a dude, it doesn’t matter – most of the topics are gender neutral.

French words
Note: do not call your waiter “garçon” in French.

Don’t overpack

You probably don’t need as much stuff as you think you do, and you are going to have to carry it all. You know you’re going to be going home with more stuff than you came with anyway!

(As I wrote in another post on teaching English in France, the dress code tends to be on the casual side, so don’t worry too much about bringing dressy clothes for work.)

Do connect with other assistants in your region

There should be a Facebook group for your city or region – find it and join it. Even if you really want to spend your year making French friends, not other anglophone friends, it is nice to have that online network when you have a question about lesson planning or opening your bank account. You don’t necessarily have to hang out with other assistants, but it’s a good idea to stay connected in the anglophone community. Sometimes being a foreigner is rough, and we have each other’s backs.

Do get in touch with your school

There’s some information you’re going to want sooner rather than later – will your school provide lodging? What will your schedule be? Will you be teaching your own classes, or having small conversation groups? You have no control over when someone gives you this information, and chances are no one will be in touch until the end of August or September because of les vacances, but at least if you send them an email (in French!) you’re opening the door for that communication to begin.

Do bring some props from home

You’re going to be talking about where you come from and your culture as much as you will be teaching English (more, in some cases). It’s great to have visual aids to present. Depending on your responsibilities and teaching style, you might want to have real English-language materials, like magazines, etc. to bring to class. Tip: think about presenting your city or region rather than (or in addition to) your country as a whole, especially if you’re American.

Don’t be too nice

If you’re responsible for a class, even if there are only eight students, be prepared to lay down the law from the start. Decide what is and is not acceptable in your class, and what the consequences will be if a student is uncooperative, and be consistent. If you don’t follow through, they will never take you seriously. Ask a teacher what the school rules are and what your options are to discipline, since you probably won’t be grading them.

Don’t mess up your consulate appointment

Going to the French consulate should be a million times easier than any French bureaucratic process in France. If you schedule your appointment ASAP, get all your paperwork lined up (there should be a list of requirements on your consulate’s website), and show up on time, there’s no reason it should go wrong.

Do feel free to tell the consulate if you have a reason to stay in France after the end of your contract

Your visa status is “travailleur temporaire.” You can have a visa with this status for up to a year. An assistant contract is usually seven months, and the visa is often valid 8-10 months – it depends on your consulate.

When I was getting my visa at the San Francisco consulate, the woman asked me if I would be staying in France after the end of my contract. Since I live in France and am annually plagued with visa obstacles, I wanted my visa to be valid as long as possible. That didn’t seem like the right thing to say at the consulate, though. I explained that my friend was getting married in September (true), so I needed to be able to stay in France until then. This kind sweet lady sent my passport back with a visa valid for 12 months. Woohoo!

Note: the 12 months start the day you arrive in France, not when your contract begins. That’s why you have to have purchased your plane ticket before your consulate appointment.

Of course, this all depends on which consulate you are at and who you speak with, but it can’t hurt to ask as long as you present a good reason!

Do get a new copy of your birth certificate with an apostille and don’t wait until the last minute!

You’ll need this to get a social security number and healthcare. They should accept a copy (color is better) at your appointment, but better to have the original on hand in case you need it. When I went to the Assurance Maladie, they didn’t require a translation for a birth certificate in English, but many people recommend that you have one done by a translator certified by the French consulate. (Note: L’assurance maladie is sometimes finicky with American birth certificates since they vary by state. Be persistent. You can read about my ordeal here.)

Do start looking for housing before you arrive

Finding somewhere to live can be a challenge. If your school offers lodging, I recommend that you take it. It will most likely be the cheapest option, and you can always move out if you find somewhere you’d prefer to live. Otherwise, network with other assistants and expats and search on leboncoin.fr (like French craigslist – it’s your best bet for finding a place.) It’s not necessarily likely that you’ll actually have somewhere to live when you arrive, but at least you’ll know the lay of the land. However…

Don’t get scammed on Leboncoin

Just like Craigslist, use caution on Leboncoin! There are tons of legit offers on the site, but if a deal looks too good to be true, it probably is. Of course, never send money or personal information ahead of time. You might be tempted to wire a deposit if you’re in a panic about ending up homeless, but don’t do it! You will not end up living on the street. Okay?

Do have a credit card with no international fees, and do find out where you can withdraw cash with no fees

You’ve got to set up a bank account in France to get paid (but you need an address first!) but in the meantime, you still need money. Having a credit card with no international fees is a no-brainer, and you also want to check with your bank to find out where you can withdraw cash without getting charged (you gotta have cash!)

For example, in the States, I have an account at Bank of America. I can withdraw cash at BNP Paribas ATMs without getting charged per transaction (but I do pay a small percentage fee). I also have their Travel Rewards credit card, which I love a) because there are no international fees and b) because it has the little European chip in it, which makes it easier to use over here. (You literally have to show people how to swipe a credit card in their machine here, unless you’re somewhere with a large influx of non-European visitors. It is a completely foreign concept.)

Note: Even if you have a credit card with the chip, there are still some places it won’t work because it’s a foreign card, like the SNCF train station automated machines.

Don’t forget to tell your bank and credit cards where you’ll be so that your account doesn’t get blocked!

Because that is no fun for anyone.

Do have enough funds to last you a month or two when you arrive

You’re not going to get paid until the end of November. You might get an advance of a couple hundred euros at the end of October. You will still have to pay for stuff.


Don’t expect everyone to speak English

The English teachers at your school will speak English (right?) but the administration and the other teachers probably won’t. Some people will want to practice their English with you, so if your goal is to speak French, figure out a polite way to communicate that (just continuing to respond in French often does the trick.)

If you struggle with speaking French at first, that’s okay! Look up a list of necessary vocabulary before going into new situations. For example, if I go to the doctor, I make sure I have all the words I need to explain what my symptoms are, and if I go to the préfecture, I make sure I have a long list of profanities handy. (…Kidding.)

Good luck!

I’ve written more about teaching English in France (including lesson plans, types of visas, and getting a TEFL certificate) here.

Have you been a language assistant in France? What advice would you give?